Article Bank # A-80
The author, Denise Ferry, is a capital case consultant in Fairfax, California who specializes in cases involving American Indians.
[Article received: March, 2000.]
FETAL ALCOHOL SYNDROME
ROBERT ALTON HARRIS: A Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Capital Case History
On April 21, 1992 Robert Alton Harris was executed by the State of California. His tragic life and the crimes for which that life was taken are the classic expression of FAS damage writ large and terrible. Irreparably damaged by his mother’s drinking, he was prematurely kicked into life by his father’s jealous, alcoholic rage. Unable to pick up warning signs, his childhood was spent as a lightning rod for his parents’ brutality. His mental impairments foreclosed educational and employment success and his terrible life experiences created a host of emotional and mental problems that obscured the tragic flaw with which he was born: FAS. His life history chronology woven from records and interviews is replete with characteristic neurological damage, facial anomalies, smallness of size and incidents of impulsiveness, lack of judgment and naivete dating from his earliest years.
As an adult, Robert and his older brother both fought with a man who died as a result. But Robert alone accepted blame for his death and in June of 1975 he pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and went to prison. After his release his life continued to be one of frustration and failure.
In 1978 he and his brother Daniel were arrested for the kidnap-murder of two boys whose car Robert and Daniel used in a bank robbery. The robbery bespoke of almost ludicrous incompetence: local residents watched two armed men walking down the street carrying a pillow case and wearing stocking caps in July. Not surprisingly, nothing went well and they tried to deal with frustrating realities through a series of ad hoc, impulsive adjustments that were later confused with rational decisions by lawyers and experts uneducated in FAS symptoms.
Needing to get away from the robbery scene, they commandeered a car and its two young occupants and forced them to drive them to a place where the boys were shot and killed. Daniel’s statements which shifted all the blame to his brother, Robert, were accepted by the police despite the evidence that one of the victims had been shot with the gun Daniel had possessed at the crime scene. Robert was unable to provide any explanation for the shootings and could only say: “I don’t know why I shot them… I don’t know why I killed them.”
At trial the jury was presented with Daniel’s damning testimony that Robert laughed at the murder scene and later ate the victim’s hamburgers. The jury understandably concluded they were presented with a defendant of monstrous callousness. In statements to a police psychiatrist and at trial Robert did not deny the hamburger story. Police files show, however, that the victims’ had purchased only one hamburger, and it was found by police at the scene of the shooting. Robert’s failure to refute the untrue hamburger story is typical of a person damaged by FAS who does not want to admit he does not know or remember what happened and has not the slightest understanding of the implications of such a statement. However, even if Robert had laughed and eaten a hamburger under those circumstances, it would not be the indication of callousness that it would be in a normal person, but a confirmation of his mental impairments.
Robert was, not surprisingly, the willing tool of a jailhouse informant and his statements at trial vacillated between preposterous denials of guilt and incriminating comments he thought others wanted to hear. During his thirteen years on death row, he proved what an appropriate candidate he would have been for life without possibility of parole by the quiet life he lived there.
Robert’s exact role in the death of the two boys cannot now be known. However, based upon the mental impairment he consistently exhibited throughout his entire life as a result of the damage of fetal alcohol syndrome, he would have been unable to deal with the situation in which he found himself and unable to understand the consequences of his actions.
One of the greatest tragedies of Robert’s life is that the terrible flaw underlying all his other problems, FAS, was not diagnosed and presented on his behalf at the trial level or even at the appeal level until 1990 when it was too late: ruled inadmissible through procedural default.
Many other clients currently facing capital trials and appeals are victims of fetal alcohol syndrome and need to have this cruel affliction turned to the only good purpose it can ever serve: a legitimate defense in their capital cases.